BURKE, William (1729-98), of Beaconsfield, Bucks.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



16 June 1766 - 1768
20 May 1768 - 1774

Family and Education

b. 1729, 1st s. of John Burke, barrister, of St. Marylebone, London, by his 1st w. Elizabeth, da. of Thomas Burke, vintner, of London.  educ. Westminster, Sept. 1742, aged 13; Ch. Ch. Oxf. 26 June 1747, aged 18; M. Temple 1750, called 1755. unm.  suc. fa. 1764.

Offices Held

Sec. and registrar of Guadeloupe 1759-63; under-sec. of state 1765-7; dep. paymaster of the forces in India 1782-93.


William and Edmund Burke called each other cousin, but it seems doubtful whether they were related. Edmund, answering Lord Verney’s bill in Chancery, 26 Nov. 1783, deposed1

that he does not know nor can form any distinct opinion of what degree of relation (if any) William Burke ... may stand to this defendant, but that he does believe that their fathers did sometimes call each other cousins, but has no other occasion to believe that they are of kindred.

When in 1750 Edmund entered the Middle Temple, William Burke’s father acted as one of his sureties and the ‘cousins’ began a friendship which lasted until Edmund’s death.

William Burke was first known as a political pamphleteer and the author of An Account of the European Settlements in America, published in 1757, and said to have been revised by Edmund. 1759-61 he was in Guadeloupe, and on his return to England lived in the closest intimacy with Edmund Burke and his family. Ambitious, anxious to please, and to become acquainted with celebrities, he was friendly with Garrick and Reynolds (but not apparently with Johnson—he is not mentioned in Boswell’s Life); and in the political world, where he hoped to make his way, was known to Henry Fox, 1st Lord Holland. Of more immediate moment was his close friendship with Lord Verney. ‘He has’, wrote Holland,2 ‘as great a sway with Lord Verney as I ever knew one man have with another.’

In 1762 he published a pamphlet, arguing for the retention of Guadeloupe; and sent a copy to Fox, now minister in the House of Commons.

I waited upon Fox [Burke wrote to Charles O’Hara, 20 Nov. 17623] who began with saying he was much displeased with my having wrote it ... I said ... that when I wrote he was not in the ministry, that my dependence was on him and him alone ... and I had conceived that if I could draw the public attention I hoped that of the minister would follow. He did not, he said, suppose I meant to hurt my friends; owned that he was not then the minister. I thank God he now is.

Burke secured Verney for the peace preliminaries, and Fox promised to support his application for the governorship of Grenada. ‘He is ... a man to be depended upon’, wrote Burke, ‘and I have good hopes that something will be done.’ Fox recommended him to Egremont, first for Grenada, then for Carolina;4 next to Sandwich for the office of judge of the Admiralty at Grenada;5 and wrote again to Sandwich, 12 Nov. 1763: ‘Pray give Mr. Burke a hearing. He is a very clever fellow, and I believe a very honest one.’ But nothing was done for him.

He now hoped through Verney’s influence to enter Parliament. On 17 Dec. 1763 Verney asked Grenville to appoint Verney Lovett to some military place which would vacate his seat at Wendover.6 ‘The gentleman I shall put into the major’s seat’, wrote Verney, ‘will I am confident to his utmost support the measures I shall approve.’ Grenville professed willingness to comply, but wrote to Verney, 18 Dec.:7 ‘There are some things in your Lordship’s letter ... which make it necessary for me to desire to see you in order to prevent any mistake and to explain my own intentions before any farther step is taken.’

Nothing came of this, and in April 1764 Burke raised the matter himself.8 He assured Grenville that he was ‘a man to be relied upon, and would retain a proper sense of an obligation’; promised a ‘steady adherence’ to Grenville consistent with his ‘just attachment’ to Verney; and concluded his appeal: ‘I will not expect anything [from the seat] unless it should so happen that I should prove useful.’ Grenville’s carefully kept letter books contain no trace of a reply, nor is any further application known. But ever afterwards Burke referred to Grenville in terms of deep dislike.

The Burkes had no acquaintance with the Opposition leaders, but when the Rockingham Administration was being formed William Fitzherbert recommended them to Lord John Cavendish. On 4 July Burke wrote to O’Hara: ‘Lord John Cavendish ... has mentioned us both as fit men to be employed to Lord Rockingham, who received it well, but what then? We have not a friend in the world to keep the impression alive. Something will I hope however turn up.’

Burke’s appointment as under-secretary to Conway was followed by arrangements to vacate the seat at Wendover, which William now yielded to Edmund—an obligation Edmund never forgot and which he characteristically exaggerated: Verney expected shortly to be able to return William at Great Bedwyn. ‘You can ... form some judgment of the nature of that friendship’, Edmund wrote to George Macartney, 21 Dec. 1765, ‘which could not only desire but press me to get upon his own ground.’ William Burke, he wrote to William Markham, December 1771,

has had the closest and longest friendship for me; and has pursued it with such nobleness in all respects, as has no example in these times, and would have dignified the best periods of history. Whenever I was in question, he has been not only ready, but earnest even, to annihilate himself ... Looking back to the course of my life, I remember no one considerable benefit in the whole of it, which I did not, mediately or immediately, derive from him.

In this style Edmund defended him at every stage of his career.

William had little political consciousness and was much slower than Edmund in attaching himself to Rockingham: as late as 21 Dec. 1765 in a letter to George Macartney he described Holland as ‘my great north star to direct my political opinions’. He found his work dull—‘much to do in what is called business, which is mostly attendance’;9 and, not being in Parliament or near the centre of affairs, did not have Edmund’s opportunities. By the time a seat had been found for him (on Verney’s interest at Great Bedwyn) Edmund had become a prominent politician, and henceforth took the lead.

William now became the man of business of the Burke family and addressed himself to the task of making their fortune. On 4 Oct. 1766 he wrote to O’Hara:

If Ned gets to you ... he will tell you that our fortunes are in a condition to second our views of independency, and our resolution of acting in our public capacity with the same correctness as we have had the good fortune to observe in private life. You will be glad to know that in this we have no division of our obligation, all this like as the all before we owe to Lord Verney’s wonderful goodness and friendship; in one word the necessary rise of values of East India stock was foreseen before the price rose or an increased dividend was talked of, but as that increase might possibly not be determined on in 3 or 6 or 9 or even 12 months those who bought on what they call speculation, that is who agreed to pay such a price for such a quantity at a particular day, ran the risk of losing if the price at that particular day happened not to answer his speculation; so that no one could with safety venture on buying with safety but those who could actually pay down their money, and keep their stock in their possession quietly till the dividend was increased. This Lord Verney could you know easily do and had he chosen to lay out a million that way, no one could have objected to his taking the consequential benefit of all the money he employed that way, but he considered this an opportunity of making us independent, and actually paid down of his own above £9,000 and engaged for above forty more for me. The dividend is come sooner than I expected, and though the accounts are not yet settled, I may within compass say that I have made £12,000 at least. It would be idle to use words to express what we owe to this man’s disinterested unaffected worth and goodness to us. The season too is so critical, that surely we may think it providential, and without any superstitious vanity too, if the thought of it reminds us to endeavour to grow better men as we grow richer. It is our good fortune you see to have this advantage without even the imputation of stock jobbing, or the term of bull or bear being applicable to us.

That there was anything improper in an undersecretary of state speculating in East India stock when the Company was about to become the subject of parliamentary inquiry seems to have occurred to neither of the Burkes.

Naïve and optimistic, William Burke dreamt of their political future now they were financially independent.

Wherever we light now it must and in reason ought to be in the style of co-operation, not of personal attachment to any man or set of men, Ned’s ability and Ld. Verney’s weight may justly entitle us to our opinions, I think they never will be mean or base, and being what they ought to be, are to be pursued in a style of conduct suitable to them.

In Rockingham’s list of the House of Commons, November 1766, William Burke is listed as ‘Swiss’ (presumably ready to follow any Administration for reward).

But Edmund was determined to remain with Rockingham, and fully concurred when in November 1766 Rockingham broke with Chatham and went into opposition; moreover, Chatham’s projected inquiry into the East India Company impaired William’s speculations, which depended for success on an increase in dividend. On 25 Nov. Edmund voted against Conway’s motion for a committee of inquiry; which William, still in office as Conway’s under-secretary, could hardly oppose.

On 23 Dec. Edmund wrote to O’Hara:

Will feels exactly as I do, that if Conway does not go out in a very short time indeed, he will get away from a situation of nicety, and fix himself upon more decided ground. He has stayed so long in Babylon, merely in compliance with the desires of his friends.

And on 15 Jan. 1767: ‘Will is still in but how long so? the only difficulty is to separate without a quarrel; and that will be if possible.’ He resigned in February. ‘It so happened’, he wrote to James Barry on 25 Feb., ‘that consistent with propriety, I could not continue, and I thank God that my affairs are in that situation that I had no temptation from fear, to be backward in doing what I ought.’ And in Rockingham’s list the word ‘Swiss’ opposite his name was now changed to ‘Whig’. ‘Will feels easy in the freedom he has purchased at so good a price’, wrote Edmund to O’Hara on 28 Feb.; and on 28 Mar.: ‘Will ... is beginning to be most active in the House ... he will be an immense accession to the party.’

On 6 May 1767, when a settlement with the East India Company was in sight, the court of proprietors raised the dividend to 12½%. ‘The indecency and insult of this proceeding’, writes Walpole,10 ‘raised high resentment in the House of Commons’; on 7 May, when it was debated, ‘Dempster and W. Burke ... ventured to avow their own share of the criminality.’ No other speech by Burke on the dividend bill is known, while as yet his interest in the Company was purely financial and confined to keeping the dividend at as high a figure as possible.

In April 1768 Edmund Burke bought the estate of Gregories, near Beaconsfield—the high water mark of the Burkes’ prosperity. It was also to be the home of William and Richard, Edmund’s brother; but Edmund was the only one married and with a child and the purchase was concluded in his name. ‘I have made a push with all I could collect of my own and the aid of my friends’, he wrote,11 ‘to cast a little root into this country.’ The estate cost £20,000, of which £14,000 was raised on mortgage; and it seems probable that William Burke was one of the friends who helped to provide the remainder.

The election of East India directors in 1769 was ‘one of the most fiercely contested of the century’.12 Laurence Sulivan, in his bid to regain control of the Company, had built up a fund of stock to be used for making faggot votes. The subscribers, who included Verney and William and Richard Burke, borrowed stock which they pledged to return after the election at a price of 280. Hardly was the election over when there came the first great East India slump, in which the Burkes lost heavily. How much it is difficult to say; here is the estimate of Thomas Whateley, a well-informed observer, not hostile to them:13

I find that on the opening of Mr. de la Fontaine’s [Verney’s broker] books the names of the Burkes stand against very large sums. Richard Burke £29,000 stock, upon which £10,745 is the difference.14 Richard Burke and S. Dyer15 £13,000 stock, upon which £4,870 is the difference. W. Burke £5,000 stock, upon which £1,900 is the difference.

In addition William had been engaged with Verney and Lauchlin Macleane in dealings in margins, which resulted in William owing large sums to Verney, and Macleane (who was ruined by the venture) owing over £6,000 to William. Finally, William and Verney had been conducting large-scale speculations on the Amsterdam market which left them with a joint liability of £47,000.16

In 1768 William Burke had been returned for Great Bedwyn on a compromise between Verney and Lord Bruce, who henceforth controlled the borough. His voting record is the same as Edmund Burke’s: in every known division against Administration; and he said in the House, 19 Apr. 1769, of his connexion with the Rockingham party:17 ‘I am willing to be called a follower, the humblest and meanest of that set.’ 173 interventions in debate are noted 1768-74, which puts him among the 20 most frequent speakers in that Parliament. ‘As an orator’, wrote Walpole,18 he ‘had neither manner nor talents’; his speeches contain nothing original, and he was never regarded even in his own party as anything but Edmund Burke’s jackal.

In 1774 Verney could no longer afford to bring the Burkes into Parliament gratis, nor could they pay for their seats. Edmund wrote to Rockingham on 25 Sept.:

I am not half so much concerned about my own seat as about that of my friend Burke, to whom I primarily owe my being a Member of Parliament, and who has for me sacrificed everything, and by his encouragement and example always made me act with proper resolution, if ever I have so acted. To him a seat is more essential [because of his debts]; and I could never, without grief and shame, see myself within the walls of that house, if he who first brought me within them, was to wait for me in the lobby.

Rockingham immediately offered Edmund a seat at Malton, his pocket borough, but could or would do nothing for William.

Your own feelings [he wrote to Edmund, 2 Oct.] in regard to Mr. William Burke are both natural and becoming your principles and actions in life, but I am sure both for Mr. William Burke and all your family concerns, yourself being in Parliament is the principal thing necessary.

Edmund now applied to Portland for a seat for William:19

He has been eminently useful and faithful to the cause, a constant friend to good men, and perfectly an enemy to their adversaries. Depend upon it if he is preserved he will pay it in real service. I have no other object more at heart. I can be neither easy nor happy without it. I fight this battle; I will fight any in England for the same prospect. I repeat it, the service he will do is beyond what I am sure is commonly imagined.

Apparently financed by Portland20 William stood for Haslemere. He was defeated, but petitioned; and wrote to Portland, 12 Apr. 1775: ‘On the whole I trust I might speak with confidence, but that which is sub judice is in its nature doubtful, so that I don’t suffer my own mind to run the whole line of her expectations.’ But his petition was rejected.

Out of Parliament, overwhelmed by debts (in 1774 judgments were entered against him in the King’s bench for over £6,00021), and with no prospect of his party’s speedy return to office, his future looked grim. India seemed to offer the only chance of re-establishing his fortunes, and in 1776 he hoped to succeed Lauchlin Macleane as commissary-general of musters in Bengal. This came to nothing, but in 1777, when news reached England of the imprisonment of Lord Pigot at Madras, Pigot’s friends chose William Burke to carry the Company’s orders for his release. Once in India it was expected that he would find some way of making his fortune, as others had done before him. Rockingham recommended him to Pigot, and Edmund Burke wrote about his departure to Philip Francis, a member of the council of Bengal (9 June 1777):

Indemnify me, my dear Sir, as well as you can, for such a loss, by contributing to the fortune of my friend. Bring him home with you an obliged person and at his ease, under the protection of your opulence. You know what his situation has been, and what things he might have surely kept, and infinitely increased, if he had not those feelings which make a man worthy of fortune, but do not put him in the way of securing it. Remember that he asks those favours which nothing but his sense of honour prevented his having it in his power to bestow. This will be a powerful recommendation to a heart like yours. Let Bengal protect a spirit and rectitude, which are no longer tolerated in England.

His ‘rectitude’ was rewarded, and he returned to England in 1778 as agent for the Rajah of Tanjore—an appointment which had unfortunate consequences. He plunged deep into the morass of Indian politics, and became Edmund Burke’s adviser on Madras affairs as Francis was to be on Bengal; and the dispute between the Rajah of Tanjore and the Nawab of Arcot, in which the Burkes now took sides, became an issue in English party warfare.

When Parliament was dissolved in 1780 William Burke was on his way back to India, and on 8 Sept. he wrote from Paris to Portland:

I have no doubt of my friend Lord Verney[’s] serious intentions to serve me, free from all motives of interest or benefit to himself, but his Lordship is also deeply interested in the success of my fortune, which (if I can go out accredited with a seat in Parliament) is certain, easy and considerable ...
If this catches you in London, I am sure you will be so good to see Lord Verney; I know that the honour of your Grace’s interference and expressing a wish to my being in Parliament will have its weight ... As his Lordship knows you are apprised of the business and even a party (as far as the honour of your sanction to my promise of either paying down the £10,00022 or relinquishing the seat immediately on my return) there will I trust be no unsurmountable awkwardness, in your Grace’s writing to his Lordship.

No reply to this letter is known, but on 23 Sept. Burke wrote again:

I learn today from my friend Mr. Adey,23 the very kind manner in which your Grace received his late application concerning very material interests of mine. I am sure you do me the justice to believe me most sincerely sensible of your goodness to me on this and on the manifold other occasions wherein I have presumed to trouble you.

If Portland did anything it was of no avail. Verney had again to sell his seats at Wendover, but he seems to have tried to find a seat for William elsewhere.24 However, neither William nor Edmund Burke was returned at the general election.25

In April 1782, after the Rockingham Administration had taken office, Edmund wrote to William:

My dear, my ever dear friend, why were not you here to enjoy, and to partake in this great, and I trust, for the country, happy change. Be assured, that in the Indian arrangements, which I believe will take place, you will not be forgotten, at least I hope not ... Oh! my dearest, oldest, best friend, you are far off indeed! May God of his infinite mercy preserve you. Your enemies, your cruel and unprovoked persecutors, are on the ground, suffering the punishment not of their villainy towards you, but of their other crimes, which are innumerable ... Resolutions will pass after the holidays to secure the Rajah of Tanjore and to limit the Nabob. Much good will happen. Indeed, my dear friend, your honest and humane labours have not been useless ... May God of his infinite mercy return you to us, happy and prosperous, and above all speedily.

Before the wiping out of old scores over India could begin, Rockingham was dead and his Administration had fallen to pieces; but Edmund had had time to appoint William deputy paymaster of the forces in India at a salary of £2,000 p.a. The office was ‘created on purpose for him’, wrote Walpole;26 and Cornwallis, governor-general of Bengal, later declared ‘that the sending William Burke to India was a most unnecessary job’.27 He had at last got his hand into the government till and not before time, for Verney, on the edge of bankruptcy, was pressing the Burkes for repayment of their loans. In 1783 he sued Edmund for £6,000 which he alleged had been borrowed to pay off the mortgages on Gregories, but was non-suited.28 In 1784 Verney estimated that Edmund owed him £11,000 and William £20,000, with ‘no security except honour’.29 Edmund was in no position to pay, and Verney’s hopes were pinned on William’s ‘honour’ and what he could plunder in India.

For his second period in India (1780-93) only one letter to Edmund survives (Edmund destroyed a considerable part of his correspondence), and it is not known how William set about making his fortune. His first efforts were not successful. In a letter to Richard Burke jun. of 30 Dec. 1785 he wrote: ‘My last losses make my return speedily to haven not improbable.’ Then he outlined a scheme to raise ‘vast fortunes from the remittance of the public debt of near £600,000, which would without risk or the possibility of failure put six times £25,000 in my pocket’. If that did not materialize he hoped for the remittance of the pay for the Madras forces: from this he would clear £5,000 a year, deduct £3,000 for living expenses, add his salary of £2,000, and there would be a surplus of £4,000 a year—‘to be used of course for our common benefit’. And ‘money made in remittance ... is as fair as the product of a man’s own acres’. ‘£4,000 a year for two or three years, if I last so long’, he wrote, ‘may clear me and clear Beaconsfield.’ But it would hardly have cleared Verney’s claims upon him.

These schemes depended upon the acquiescence of the pay office in London and the governor general in Calcutta. Had Edmund Burke remained paymaster general and had Fox’s East India bill become law William Burke might have made his fortune, but the dismissal of the Coalition ruined his chances. He secured the remittance to Madras (‘fixed at the scandalous exchange of 410 Arcot rupees for 100 pagodas’ by John Macpherson, acting governor general after Hastings’s departure, ‘in order to pay his court to Edmund Burke’30), but not to Bombay. Cornwallis, appointed governor general in 1786, objected that there was a ‘positive order’ from the Company against separate remittances, which would establish ‘distinct funds, or rather treasuries ... not subordinate to the respective governments’. This was one of the principles Edmund Burke when in opposition laid down in his plan of economical reform: ‘That all subordinate treasuries ... as naturally drawing to themselves as much money as they can, keeping it as long as they can, and accounting for it as late as they can, ought to be dissolved’.

Next, Burke put forward a plan, ‘so extraordinary’, wrote Cornwallis, ‘that I had great difficulty to persuade myself he was in earnest’. He wished to remit to England the money owed by the Company to the Crown for the service of troops in India, ‘about £800,000 ... bearing interest at 8%’, although this was a paper transaction which could easily be effected in London.

The times were no longer propitious for making fortunes out of public money. ‘The folly and ignorance of my principals play the Devil with me’, Burke wrote to his relation, William Cuppage, on 13 May 1792; ‘if my dear Edmund cannot replace [William’s office] on the bottom where he originally fixed it, it is impossible for me to hold with credit’—a Burkism, meaning that without Company remittances he could not make his fortune.

In 1793 he returned to England, broken in health, apparently a confirmed drunkard, and ‘as much ruined as when he went’:31 worse, in fact, for there was a deficiency in his accounts as paymaster. Verney had died in 1791 without, as far as can be ascertained, having received anything from Burke, and his niece and heiress determined to prosecute him. On 16 Dec. 1795 Edmund Burke wrote to Cuppage:

Our worthy and unfortunate friend is arrested for ten thousand pound on a bond which he was cheated into by Lord Verney. His niece Lady Fermanagh is the oppressor at present.

Lady Fermanagh, the last ‘oppressor’, fared no better than her uncle: her suggestion that William should convey his assets to trustees for the settlement of her claims was treated by Edmund as ‘a deed palpably fraudulent ... and directly against his public trust’. ‘Where is the fund to answer the Crown balances’, he asked, ‘... if everything he has in the world shall go to Lady Fermanagh?’ In fact there was nothing for either.

William Burke’s last years were spent in complete obscurity. He died in March 1798.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: John Brooke


  • 1. Dixon Wecter, Edmund Burke and his Kinsmen, 7.
  • 2. To Sandwich, 12 Nov. 1763, Sandwich mss.
  • 3. Charles O’Hara was an Irish M.P. and a close friend of the Burkes. For their letters to him see Ross J. S. Hoffman, Edmund Burke, New York Agent.
  • 4. 1 Mar. and 18 Apr. 1763, Egremont mss, PRO 30/47/29/3.
  • 5. 30 Apr. 1763, Sandwich mss.
  • 6. Grenville mss (JM).
  • 7. Grenville letter bk.
  • 8. Grenville mss (JM).
  • 9. To Jas. Barry, 23 Mar. 1766.
  • 10. Mems. Geo. III, iii. 16.
  • 11. To Rich. Shackleton, 1 May 1768.
  • 12. L. S. Sutherland, E. I. Co. in 18th Cent. Politics, 187-8.
  • 13. Grenville mss (JM).
  • 14. The difference between the price at which the stock then stood, and at which it had to be returned.
  • 15. About Sam. Dyer see Wecter, 39.
  • 16. See intro. to L. S. Sutherland, Corresp. of Edmund Burke, ii. (1768-74).
  • 17. Cavendish’s ‘Debates’, Egerton 219, ff. 293-4.
  • 18. Mems. Geo. III, ii. 195.
  • 19. ante 4 Oct. 1774.
  • 20. W. Burke to Portland, 10 May 1775, Portland mss.
  • 21. Dilke, Papers of a Critic, ii. 341.
  • 22. Burke had given Verney a bond for £10,000 in part acknowledgment of his debts.
  • 23. Stephen Adey, a London banker.
  • 24. See Exchequer case, Verney v. Weston, E112/1718/4170.
  • 25. Edmund was returned by Rockingham at Malton in Dec. 1780.
  • 26. Last Jnls. ii. 453.
  • 27. Cornwallis Corresp. i. 465.
  • 28. See Appendix to Sutherland, Corresp. Edmund Burke, ii. (1768-74).
  • 29. Verney Letters of 18th Cent. ed. Verney, ii. 277-8.
  • 30. Cornwallis to Lord Rawdon, 2 Dec. 1789, Cornwallis Corresp. ii. 463-5.
  • 31. Sir Gilbert to Lady Elliot, 2 May 1793, Life and Letters of Sir Gilbert Elliot, ii. 136-8.